Diaspora Jews can choose to live in Israel… or not - opinion

Israeli Zionists forever envisioned the end of the Diaspora. American Jewish leaders, meanwhile, insist their community members will remain in the US.

The writer (left) with then-prime minister opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu at a Conference of Presidents event in Jerusalem in February 2020. (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
The writer (left) with then-prime minister opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu at a Conference of Presidents event in Jerusalem in February 2020.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

The Jerusalem Post op-ed I recently penned on the impact of Israel’s travel restrictions on Diaspora Jewry has caused something of a stir. Rabbi Daniel Gordis, in a recent piece published on his Substack platform page, used it as a jumping-off point to discuss the broader question of Israel-Diaspora relations. Gordis, a great and popular scholar at Jerusalem’s Shalem College, averred that ever since the founding of Israel there has been a tension between the Jewish state and Jews who live outside of it, particularly in the United States.

Israeli Zionists, populating one of world Jewry’s two poles, forever envisioned the end of the Diaspora, he wrote. American Jewish leaders, meanwhile, were staunch Zionists, who nonetheless insist their community members will remain in the US. In Gordis’s telling, this age-old conflict has acquired new salience amid the coronavirus pandemic, which made it much harder for Diaspora Jews to visit Israel over the past two years.

These restrictions were weighing on Israel-Diaspora relations, as I wrote in that last article in these very pages. American Jews, and others in the Diaspora, have family and friends in Israel; rely on the Jewish state as a cultural and educational center; they look to it as a safe haven against rising antisemitism. The sense of security and vitality that the state of Israel affords to world Jewry was strongly undermined when the Jews of the Diaspora were largely prohibited from visiting our Promised Land.

As a leader of American Jewry, I firmly believe that I have no right to tell Jews where to live. My role – and our role as officials in the Diaspora and Israel – is to enable Jews to live freely and safely wherever they like and then protect them wherever they choose. No one forced the refuseniks to go to Israel nor to the US; some came here, others went there; we fought our hardest, nonetheless, so that Soviet Jews did not have to remain in the Eastern bloc against their will. We welcomed them in the US; we welcomed them in Israel; we even welcomed them to stay in the former Soviet Union even if it would not have been our own first choice for them.

The Jewish presence in Israel and the Diaspora is fundamentally complementary. The existence of the State of Israel provides Jews around the world with a measure of reassurance and confidence – there will always be a place of refuge for us if we should ever need it. We can engage in the public life of our home countries without fear.

 Diaspora Jews at Ben-Gurion Airport after making Aliyah to Israel. (credit: THE JEWISH AGENCY) Diaspora Jews at Ben-Gurion Airport after making Aliyah to Israel. (credit: THE JEWISH AGENCY)

THE PERSISTENCE of the Diaspora, meanwhile, enriches the diversity of world Jewish life and helps the state of Israel interface with a range of national governments. Jews today, as part of our ability to exercise our freedom of choice – a fundamental right denied us for millennia – choose to live wherever we wish, be it in the Diaspora or in Israel. But the safety net – the would-be refuge of Israel – provides us with the freedom to make a choice without fear of being locked in a country that doesn’t want us. The possibility of life in the land of Israel is always there for us. That security blanket, ensconced in Israel’s Law of Return, gives us that liberty; a liberty that our great grandparents and their forebearers could never imagine.

Despite antisemitism rearing its ugly head in the streets and in the US Congress, American Jews today enjoy more freedom to practice religion, not to mention access to opportunity, than in the last 2000 years. As distinct from times past, when Jews were segregated into ghettos or shtetls, the powers of government are now firmly on our side. In previous generations, it was the czar’s police who organized, incited, and encouraged pogroms. Today, our first call is to local government, a mayor’s office, local law enforcement, or even Department of Homeland Security or the FBI – who are all valued partners.

We are grateful that only days ago the Israeli government listened to the impassioned pleas of many of us to open its borders to Americans and other visitors (all of whom are required to follow the same testing and quarantine regimens as arriving Israelis, ensuring consistent application of public health measures aimed at limiting the spread of the coronavirus). Many families will benefit from the ability to see the loved ones they have missed, that friends will again join one another in Tel Aviv, that the Kotel will soon hear the sounds of many languages coming together as one, and our Jewish family, across continents, will be whole.

We will face challenges ahead and there will inevitably be some issues that create tension between Israel and the Diaspora. God willing, the next few years will see record numbers of Americans visiting and connecting with Israel from teen, Birthright, and Momentum trips to large community missions to the regular back and forth travel many of us have enjoyed for decades. American Jews possess a wealth of choices that many of our ancestors could never have fathomed.

What has become even more evident during these two years of travel restrictions is the centrality of Israel to 21st century American Judaism. It is, to some degree, the fulfillment of the Zionist dream that tens of thousands of Diaspora Jews were demanding entry to the State of Israel. Let us capture that desire and focus it on more engagement between our two peoples, as we jointly work through the realities imposed on us by geography, religion, politics and the COVID-19 pandemic. Working through these issues, perhaps the gulfs may not be so tough to bridge and together we can make for a better future for Israel and for all world Jewry.

The writer is CEO of The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the senior professional guiding the Conference’s agenda on behalf of its 53 national member organizations, which represent the wide mosaic of American Jewish life. Follow him on Twitter @Daroff.